‘It’s a long story,” Ashley Stoll says with a laugh and a sparkle in her eye when asked about the origins of the Tandem Mentorship program. “Tandem first began under 513FREE (a Christian worship and prison ministry). I married one of their members, Jonny Stoll, and 513FREE adopted me into their family.”
Together, Ashley and Jonny Stoll were active volunteers for The Lighthouse, a youth center in downtown Eau Claire, and Ashley’s passion for outreach and youth rekindled. Her story goes back to her own youth. Stoll grew up in a single-parent household. Her mom worked long, hard hours to support the family, leaving Ashley with a lot of time to take some rough turns in life. When she made the decision to “come back to Jesus” she remembers zealously trying to re-earn His grace. “I know now that I never had to work to earn God’s love and grace,” she says. “But my zeal led me to Africa. My eyes were opened to the suffering of young children and teens. I remember thinking: ‘How can I help kids who live in poverty within my own home of Eau Claire?’ ”
In 2016, Ashley and her confidantes (Mary, Sue, Brenda, and Jen) started Tandem. The goal of Tandem is to provide support and encouragement to youths between the ages of 11 and 18 who often fall through the cracks. These young people have so many abilities but often don’t have the resources or support to break destructive behaviors in order to embrace all of their potential.
“If there’s one thing I want to share with everyone, it’s this: Pouring into others doesn’t have to be difficult. It should be an extension of who you already are. You in no way need to have a ‘perfect’ life. – Ashley Stoll, Tandem Mentorship Program
Ashley remembers the first time she met “Jeremy.” “He had this hard exterior and was apprehensive to let people close to him. Then, Jonny and the guys started spending time with him, playing basketball with him, and just pouring positive messages into his life; encouraging him,” Stoll shares. As weeks passed, Jeremy’s hard exterior fell away and he grew confident to let his true-self shine. “When he made the decision to invite Christ into his life, his joy was overwhelming,” she said. “I wish you could have been there to experience it.”
Tandem is very much a faith-based program because its founders believe that the light of Jesus is vital for emotional healing. That said, they don’t believe in forcing faith. Matthew 28:18 encourages believers to “go and make disciples.” Stoll relays that, “Literally translated, what this truly means is that we should be disciples through our actions and open up our hearts to others.”
Joe Swanson, a UW-Eau Claire student and Tandem mentor, says that Tandem’s approach to sharing a positive message with struggling youth is one of the reasons he was drawn to be a part of the program. “They don’t try to push faith onto the mentees,” Swanson says. “They allow the mentors take control and share their faith-stories when they feel their mentees are ready to hear it. It’s also more important in this process that we lead by example. It’s not our intention to force an agenda.”
Tandem’s faith-based approach makes it different from some other mentorship groups. However, Tandem’s goal is not to compete with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters or the Boys and Girls Club. Stoll says that they partner with these organizations so that more youth can receive the support they need. “Big Brothers Big Sisters will send kids our way so they’re not stuck on a waiting list,” Stoll shares.
Tandem also hosts special activities and events to support youth of the 180 Program, an at-risk youth intervention program in Eau Claire County. Guitar Tuesdays are a favorite among the young adults. They meet at the Tandem center to practice guitar. When they complete several hours of lessons, they earn a guitar of their very own. Recently, Ashley and her team put in a grant through the Eau Claire Community Foundation in an effort to obtain more musical equipment: a piano, a drum set, and more guitars. This summer, Tandem will also host Tandem Tuesdays, which will be centered on giving youth a space to build friendships and develop life skills. In the past, teens have learned how to change the tires on a car along with the oil. “I wish I’d have learned how to do these things sooner,” Ashley says with a giggle. But they don’t put the kids to work every Tuesday. There have been nights dedicated to celebrating pets of all kinds: soft and smooth; scaly and cool.
For anyone feeling stirred to get involved: When Tandem meets potential mentors, they do look for people who believe in the redeeming grace of Jesus. Typically, mentors are found through the church network or personal recommendations, but those are not the only pathways a person might take to get involved. When someone expresses interest in mentoring through Tandem, background checks and home visits take place before someone is accepted into the mentoring role. Tandem also holds orientation sessions to establish the importance of setting boundaries and communicating best practices for maintaining a mentor/mentee relationship.
Since its start in 2016, Tandem has continued to grow. Last September, Tandem was able to move from the support of 513FREE and become its own nonprofit organization. Ashley is encouraged, excited, and blessed to be able to support the youth of our community in her dream way. “If there’s one thing I want to share with everyone, it’s this: Pouring into others doesn’t have to be difficult. It should be an extension of who you already are. You in no way need to have a ‘perfect’ life. One hour a week (one of our favorite Netflix shows) can make a tremendous difference in someone’s life.”
Learn more about the Tandem mentorship program by visiting tandemmentorship.org, calling (715) 577-3322, or emailing hello @ tandemmentorship.com.